JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- A peace deal has been reached between the Central African Republic government and 14 armed groups after their first-ever direct dialogue aimed at ending years of conflict, the United Nations and African Union announced on Saturday.
The peace deal represents rare hope for the impoverished, landlocked nation where interreligious and intercommunal fighting has continued since 2013. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in a conflict that has sent two people to the International Criminal Court.
"I am determined to work with the president and his government to address the concerns of our brothers who took up arms," said Central African Republic's Cabinet director Firmin Ngrebada, according to the U.N.
The parties on Sunday will sign a draft of the agreement, which focuses on power-sharing and transitional justice, Sudan's state media reported, citing Sudan's chief negotiator Atta al-Manan. The final deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday. Talks began Jan. 24 in Khartoum.
"This is a great day for Central African Republic and all its people," said the AU commissioner for peace and security, Smail Chergui.
The fighting has carried the high risk of genocide, the U.N. has warned. The conflict began in 2013 when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital, Bangui. Largely Christian anti-Balaka militias fought back. Scores of mosques were burned. Priests and other religious leaders were killed. Many Muslims fled the country after mobs decapitated and dismembered some in the streets.
The vicious fighting in a country known more for coups than interreligious violence was so alarming that Pope Francis made a bold visit in 2015, removing his shoes and bowing his head at the Central Mosque in the last remaining Muslim neighborhood of the capital, Bangui.
"Together we say 'no' to hatred," the pope said.
The violence has never disappeared, intensifying and spreading last year after a period of relative peace as armed groups battled over lands rich in gold, diamonds and uranium.
After more than 40 people were killed in a rebel attack on a displaced persons camp in November, both the leader of the 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission and the country's prime minister both acknowledged shortcomings in the response. "I knew that we did not have all the necessary means to protect our people," the prime minister said.
In a grim report last year marking five years of the conflict, the U.N. children's agency said fighters often target civilians rather than each other, attacking health facilities and schools, mosques and churches and camps for displaced people. At least half of the more than 640,000 people displaced are children, it said, and thousands are thought to have joined the armed groups, often under pressure.
Last month the chief of Central African Republic's soccer federation appeared at the International Criminal Court for the first time since he was arrested last year in France on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona is accused of leading the anti-Balaka for at least a year early in the fighting.
In November a Central African Republic militia leader and lawmaker, Alfred Yekatom, made his first ICC appearance, accused of crimes including murder, torture and using child soldiers. He allegedly commanded some 3,000 fighters in a predominantly Christian militia in and around the capital early in the fighting. He was arrested last year after firing gunshots in parliament.
So far no Seleka fighters have been publicly targeted by the court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
As the peace talks began last month, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned of "catastrophe" if no agreement was reached, saying repeated cycles of violence in one of the world's poorest nations had "pushed people(asterisk)s resistance to breaking point."
A majority of Central African Republic's 2.9 million people urgently need humanitarian support, the group said.
On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to extend an arms embargo on Central African Republic for a year but raised the possibility that it could be lifted earlier as the government has long urged.